There we crouched, on our fourth day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota, under a tarpaulin tied to saplings, beside a smoky birch fire, in the rain. It had rained every day. Mid-September was really past the end of the season, but we'd risked the weather to avoid the summer mosquitoes. That wasn't all we'd avoided. On the first day, camped at Missing Link Lake, we'd caught two tiny rainbow trout. "Release them," said Sven, of Duluth, who had organized this voyage. "For good karma with the fish." We hadn't had a bite in the three days since.
We were six men, three canoes, 400 pounds of gear and a silent black Labrador retriever named Lucky. "If she ever barks," said Sven, "it means a bear."
We had come from Oregon, Minnesota and Delaware. Four of us had been in the Army together. Only Sven had ever been here before. He'd sold us with statistics. The BWCA is 1,400 square miles of wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The only sensible means of travel to and over its several thousand glaciated lakes is canoeing and portaging. Many of the portage trails between lakes are those used by 17th and 18th century French voyageurs, who themselves had adopted Indian routes.
We knew the rules. No bottles or cans. Camping only at Forest Service sites with fire grates and latrines. We had a permit. Only a few are granted per day for each entry point. The intent of such rules was clear: to reduce wear and tear on the land from the 170,000 visitors who paddle through it yearly. It has worked. Though we often passed other parties, we were treated to close views of beaver, osprey and marten. Northern pike and lake trout, however, remained rumors substantiated only by photos on Sven's refrigerator.
We'd begun at Round Lake. The taciturn rental agent couldn't be bothered with taking down our names. The receipt showed he'd rented canoes only to "Six Guys."
Who were we? Had you observed us hunched around the hissing fire four days into the trip, you would have named us much as we had. The Arafat-bearded guy in the Afghanistani camel-driver's hat would be Abdul. The Duluth doctor with scabrous Scandanavian jokes was Sven. The skinny, sleepy, boot-clumsy man who had brought an oversized lantern was Streetlight. The Oregon scientist who'd mistakenly carried the pack of a person in another party for half a mile of portage was The Saint. The Saint named his tentmate, the Oregon lumber broker, taking a graphic term from geology in reference, one hoped, to the broker's snoring. The broker was H.T., for Harmonic Tremor.
That made five. The sixth, a dark, thorough man who returned offended from each day's snub by pike, would have to wait. Nothing captured him yet. He had not once spoken.
A predilection toward the giving of new handles seems a natural reaction to wilderness, to the emergence of character not seen clearly in civilization. Surely, too, names try to make the wilderness fit into human categories. Our map was evidence of that. The names of the lakes that surrounded us suggested that a vast spectrum of associations, shapes and memories had been evoked by what were, after all, very similar bodies of dark water. There were Tame and Lawless lakes, Virgin and Ecstasy lakes, Howl and Meditation lakes. Jester Lake and Fool Lake were adjacent to one another. There were Cavity and Plug lakes, and Squish and Wish lakes. In contrast with Lucky Day Lake, there were Squat, Fungus, Swollen Ankle and Whipped lakes. There even was a Time Lake, and an Elusion. Someone must have tried to fish there once.
The name of the place where we sat wetly thinking all this, a granite island in three-mile-long Little Saganaga Lake, we didn't know. That too would have to wait.
We weren't deeply uncomfortable. The tents were reasonably dry under the evergreens and mountain ash. There was firewood. We had eaten well because our Duluth packs—canoe-wide canvas maws that could hold a bale of hay—were loaded with meat and vegetables and wine and even Glenlivet single malt Scotch whisky, enduring the indignity of traveling in a plastic container. That's the thing about canoeing. You can take a piano if you don't mind staggering with it over the portages, which on our trek of 21 lakes in six days were usually anywhere from 50 yards to 600. One of them, however, was a mile and a quarter. That made it viscerally understandable why the old voyageurs' most common cause of death was incarcerated hernia.